::Literate Blather::
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
Literary Criticism: Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"

Summary: While talking a stroll about London, Mr. Utterson and his cousin happen upon a dreary section of the city mired in penury. The location was the site of a recent controversy that Mr. Utterson’s cousin relates. An ugly, dwarfish man named Mr. Hyde trampled over and severely injured a young girl. Confronted by a mob lead by the girl’s family, Mr. Hyde makes restitution in the form of a check from Dr. Jekyll – a friend of Mr. Utterson’s. Mr. Utterson, concerned for his friend’s well-being, visits Jekyll, who assures him all is well. Deciding to investigate, Mr. Utterson later meets Mr. Hyde and is struck by the evil he senses in the man. One dark night, Mr. Hyde is witnessed murdering a respected gentleman with his cane. Mr. Utterson protects Jekyll’s association with Hyde, but urges him to cut all ties. Jekyll promises to do so. But Jekyll’s experiments with chemicals have unlocked his evil nature by transforming him into Mr. Hyde. He can no longer control the transformations and Mr. Hyde takes over. In the end, confronted by his friends, Jekyll in the form of Mr. Hyde ends up committing suicide.

Analysis: Poor Robert Louis Stevenson.

He’s often dismissed as a second-rate scribbler of horror stories and adventure tales for children. He suffered greatly under the withering gaze of literary icon Virginia Woolf – who publicly disparaged his works during the height of her fame.

But there’s been a reconsideration of Stevenson as a master of the neo-romanticism movement that sprung up in London during the 1880s. This revisionist take on Stevenson is primarily driven by “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” which is a classic of the style and established Stevenson as a best-selling author in Britain and in the United States after its publication in 1886 (and many believe it was responsible for the wide-spread panic that ensued during the Jack the Ripper murders in 1888).

It’s difficult to read “Jekyll and Hyde” with a clean slate – the characters are so infused into modern society that a reader would have had to have grown up in a vacuum cleaner not to have formed some kind of impression of the characters (see: Legends of Literature Part 2).

But despite the movies, comic books, plays, parodies and TV melodramas (even the children’s show “Arthur” had an episode based on the story), the novella amazingly retains its freshness. Reading “Jekyll and Hyde” is like stepping through a looking glass and onto the gas-lit, cobblestoned byways of Victorian London. You can actually feel the chill of the fog and hear the click of walking sticks on the stones.

Stevenson is a beautiful writer – much to Woolf’s chagrin. He isn’t flowery, however, preferring a concise, direct style and relying on good old fashioned verbs and nouns to tell the story. The results, while too straight-forward for the esoteric Woolf, are vivid portraits and strong characterizations. Take this narrative from Mr. Enfield:

“Street after street, and all the folks asleep – street after street, all lighted up as if for a procession and all as empty as a church – till at last I got into that state of mind when a man listens and listens and begins to long for the sight of a policeman. All at once, I saw two figures: one little man who was stumping along eastward at a good walk, and the other a girl of maybe eight or ten who was running as hard as she was able down a cross street. Well, sire the two ran into one another naturally enough at the corner: and then cam the horrible part of the thing; for the man trampled calmly over the child’s body and left here screaming on the ground.”

This “little man,” of course, is Mr. Hyde. That may be the biggest surprise in the story: the crafty, evil doppelganger known as Mr. Hyde is a dwarf. A twisted and deformed dwarf, but nothing like the lurching giant that he is often portrayed as in film.

While disguised as a supernatural horror story, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” is actually an indictment on Victorian morals. We told from the point of view of his close-friend, Mr. Utterson, that Dr. Jekyll is an intelligent, kind-hearted man who is well-respected as he moves into middle age. But in actuality, Dr. Jekyll is bored, frustrated, and exhausted by his propriety.

And that leads the good doctor to his basement laboratory to experiment with mind-altering chemicals, powders, and potions. There he discovers not only a way to unleash his primal urges, but in way that protects his reputation and identity. He has the perfect alibi because he has become another person – Mr. Hyde.

Stevenson, of course, was prevented from telling his readers in detail what Mr. Hyde did on his midnight excursions to the seedy parts of London – but one imagines lots of alcohol, opium, gambling, and sex with prostitutes. Dr. Jekyll is seduced by this lifestyle, until it overcomes him and his urges become so debased that he turns to brutality and murder.

The story is told from the point of view of the lawyer, Mr. Utterson, and then in letters from Dr. Jekyll’s medical school mate, Dr. Lanyon, and lastly in a written confession from Dr. Jekyll himself. Surprisingly, Jekyll’s confession may be the weakest part of the narrative. The quick and easy flow established by Mr. Utterson and Dr. Lanyon’s sections skids to a halt with more stilted and formal language. The change, however, isn’t enough to derail the story.

Stevenson’s truly a delight, but often overlooked by serious readers. “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” is certainly worth the investment of time – because at about 75 pages it reads more like a short story than a novella. You’ve seen the movies, experienced the legend, so why not get the story from the original source? Especially when it’s so much fun.

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